How 'Bao' director Domee Shi stayed true to her 'weird' idea and created a specifically Asian story
By TRACY BROWN | Los Angeles Times | Published: June 19, 2018
Much like a delicious dumpling before a hearty meal, “Bao” is the bite-sized animated film audiences see before “Incredibles 2.” But more than just a Pixar appetizer, the short is a whimsical love letter to mothers as well as food. It just happens to be wrapped in a package so adorable you want to eat it.
Directed by Domee Shi, “Bao” centers on a Chinese mother with a case of empty-nest syndrome. She gets a second chance at motherhood when one of the dumplings she made comes to life as a tiny, giggly baby.
The Chinese Canadian filmmaker took inspiration from her own life as a child of immigrants when crafting the short, a story Shi first started working on over four years ago.
“I was digging through my art folder at work and the earliest sketch I found was dated January 2014,” said Shi. “It was just a bunch of different dumpling ideas, different dumpling characters.”
Shi, who joined Pixar as a story intern in 2011 before being hired as a story artist on “Inside Out,” had worked on “Bao” for almost two years on her own before bringing on more people.
“There wasn’t really a script - I kind of wrote with storyboards,” Shi explained. “I worked with my editor on the story reels, and we slowly crafted it. Cutting stuff out, putting stuff back in.”
With “Bao,” Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar short. In addition to “Inside Out,” Shi served as a story artist on “The Good Dinosaur,” “Toy Story 4” and the film her short is now paired with, “Incredibles 2.”
In a phone interview, Shi discussed her inspiration for “Bao,” overcoming her doubts to craft a specifically Chinese story and the memorable scene she almost didn’t include in the short.
Q: What was your inspiration for “Bao”?
A: My inspiration mainly came from my own life. Growing up I was that overprotected little dumpling for my Chinese mom. I was an only child living in Toronto with my parents, and they’ve always kind of watched over me and made sure I was safe - kept me really, really close. And I just wanted to explore that relationship between an overprotective parent and their child with a dumpling as a metaphor, as weird as that sounds.
I’m also like a huge foodie, so any excuse to work with food, draw food and eat food for research was great. I definitely wanted to incorporate that into the short as well.
Q: How many dumpling trips did you all go on for research?
A: Oh, so many. So many dumplings were harmed in the making of this short.
We took the crew on multiple trips to San Francisco and Oakland’s Chinatown. We took them to a lot of dim sum restaurants. And also Sichuan food restaurants because there are a lot of dishes in the short that the mom character makes that are actually inspired by my favorite dishes that my parents would make for me growing up.
These were from the Sichuan province in China, so like really spicy mapo tofu and chili boiled fish and cucumber salad and all that stuff.
We also brought my mom in twice to do dumpling-making classes for the whole crew. That was really fun research because we actually filmed her hands kneading the dough and making the wrappers, and that was used as reference for the opening shots of the short.
Q: How deeply had you thought about the dumpling-making process before working on this short?
A: I took the dumpling-making process for granted growing up because my mom would make them for me all the time: during the holidays, on weekends, for Chinese New Year. I would eat them so quickly, not paying attention to how difficult they are to make.
At least for me. I would try to make them for the crew and think, “Oh, my gosh, it takes so much time to roll out each wrapper, fill each wrapper with filling and then fold it just perfectly.” But my mom does it so quickly and effortlessly.
Now that I’ve observed her so carefully, I appreciate all of the hard work that she did to make that food for me as a kid.
Q: What was it like for you to step away from that “dumpling” role in order to see the mother’s side of the story?
A: I love using film and stories to step outside of my own point of view and my own perspective so it was really interesting to tell this story from the mother’s point of view because I never knew what it was like on the other side.
I was always so frustrated about being so coddled and overprotected and smothered by my mom. I never really understood why she did it.
So making this short and really taking the opportunity to put myself in this mom character’s shoes - to talk to my mom, to talk to different parents and kids of overprotective parents throughout the process - it was really insightful and really cool to be able to learn that perspective.
Q: Were there any specific Chinese cultural details you knew had to be included in a particular way from the beginning?
A: All of the little props and things around the Chinese mom’s house I wanted to get into the short. Our production designer Rona Liu is Chinese American, so that was really helpful because she was also able to keep track of those little cultural details as well.
We based a lot of the household on her mom’s house and my mom’s house. Like the tinfoil covering the burners on the stove, that was a fun detail we added. And the toilet paper roll on the coffee table. That was another thing that we were really adamant about putting in even though we got a lot of questions from our non-Asian crew members like, “Why is there toilet paper on the coffee table? Is that a glitch or a mistake?”
We were like “No, this is important because in a lot of Chinese immigrant families it’s just more practical to buy tons of toilet paper so you don’t have to buy two types of tissue paper: Kleenex and toilet paper. It’s just more practical to have toilet paper on the coffee table.”
Also the little tchotchkes on the TV, or the rice cooker in the background. The little details like the soy sauce bottles and the hot sauce jars and stuff on the table. Those little details that made this setting in the short feel like a real Chinese mom’s home. We wanted to capture those details as accurately as possible.
Q: They say that it’s hard to animate food. How true is that?
A: It’s very true. Some of our most complicated and expensive shots were the opening shots of the dough kneading and the wrapper folding. The dumpling-making shot with the raw pork filling, that shot took two effects artists two months to make.
Food is tricky on the computer because food is organic and squishy. It’s got irregular textures and shapes. Computers are good at rendering hard, symmetrical objects but not so much [things] like dough. It took a lot of back and forth between our art department and our effects department in order to get those food shots to look right.
Everyone in the world is an expert in what good food looks like. If you show food to a person and they’re not getting hungry then it’s just not working. That’s just an automatic reaction. So we had to just work really hard to get that raw pork to look good, to get that dough to look soft and kneadable. I think the final results look pretty awesome.
Q: What was your mom’s review of the film?
A: She’s now seen [“Bao”] probably like eight times. She likes it. She says she enjoys something new every time she watches it.
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